Gavia Libraria


The Loon usually enjoys being right, it happens so rarely. Today… not so much. She saw Harvard coming, you see. No, she didn’t know Harvard would be the first big public explosion over academic-library restructuring, but having read Harvard’s self-study almost the day it appeared in 2009, she can’t say she’s exactly surprised, either.

It’s both easy and tempting to ignore what goes under the general heading of “strategic planning” in large academic libraries. Some of it is indeed brainless buzzword-laden fluff with zero relationship to reality present or future. Some of it isn’t. Telling the difference is non-trivial, but the Loon suggests that significant involvement from campus stakeholders outside the library may be one indicator of seriousness; it certainly was at Harvard. Paid consultants, on the other hand…

For those who wish to follow along, the Twitter hashtag is #hlth. Sharp critiques of the Harvard process are already emerging. The Loon isn’t prepared to join in the condemnation at this juncture; almost anyone has greater experience and expertise in the nuts and bolts of human-resource management (never mind crisis management) than she does. She does opine, alongside others, that no reorganization of this magnitude can be anything other than wrenchingly painful and terrifying, and she offers her sincere sympathy to all concerned, for the little that must be worth.

The Loon strongly suspects that Harvard is far from the only ARL-style library system that will undergo sweeping organizational change within the next three to five years. Less sweeping (though still substantial), rather less public changes have already happened at ARL libraries here and there. (The Loon declines to be specific, but has three such in mind, just off the top of her feathered head.) Taiga has been signaling organizational restructuring for years as well.

Why? What is it about the internal and external environments at research libraries that warrants such behavior? That the Loon has a few (non-specific to Harvard, she hastens to say) thoughts on. She hopes they’ll help research librarians take a hard look at their own organizations and their positions within them, in order to protect themselves.

If the Loon had to characterize the primary difficulty in a single phrase, it would be creeping malinvestment, of space and staff. Many of today’s research libraries tend to have too many resources allocated to open stacks, underused small physical libraries, in-person reference points, and book selection, relative to the current value of these services to research-library patrons and research institutions. MARC cataloging is not just yet a likely locus of malinvestment, but the Loon suspects it will become one when (she does think “when” is correct) linked-data infrastructure eliminates considerable redundant work librarianship-wide.

(Just to be entirely clear, the Loon is not saying “there will be no physical libraries or reference desks!” or anything similarly bat-brained. Fewer is not the same as none.)

No one intended this, of course; when these investments were initially decided upon, they weren’t mal-. Once institutionalized, though, they stayed institutionalized, partly under the combined influence of tenure (and similar forever-job arrangements) and librarianship’s lack of dedication to post-MLS professional development, much less continuous organizational change. Something might also be said about the culture of workplace autonomy in research librarianship; malinvestment worsened in many research libraries where no one can tell a research librarian to change his day-to-day praxis and get results. This makes for a pleasant workplace for many research librarians, to be sure, but it also risks unchecked accumulation of deadwood and a library staff that isn’t pulling in useful, much less coordinated, directions.

Symptoms of malinvestment include Coordinator Syndrome, perhaps best explained as unwillingness or inability to allocate sufficient staff and budget to innovations. Utterly senseless organization charts also hint at malinvestment; research libraries neither retrain nor dismiss change-resistant or otherwise problematic staff, including at administrative levels, simply reshuffling them instead. Reshuffled staff may no longer be doing the organization active harm, but that’s far from saying they’re doing productive, useful work. (The Loon says this, by the way, as one who has been reshuffled—as readers can no doubt imagine, loons are headstrong and difficult to manage—and found that the reshuffling improved matters in exactly no way at all, neither for her nor her employer. After a year of trying in vain to make the situation work, she found other employment. Fault her all you wish for how badly everything turned out—she deserves considerable blame—but in the end she just couldn’t live with not being useful.)

Another symptom, as library director Jenica Rogers has pointed out, is a palpable disconnect between what research-library administrators say their strategic priorities are, and the planning and (once again) resources dedicated to those supposed priorities. How long can such disconnects linger and worsen before gradual processes of organizational change cannot heal them? How long until the lip service is just no longer credible? Worst of all, if what the administrators say, rather than what they’re doing, is actually correct strategy, how is under-resourcing it in favor of propping up the status quo anything other than malinvestment?

The Loon could start endless fruitless 20/20-hindsight arguments over where libraries have underinvested; she has strong opinions on the subject. She’ll pass on that; it’s useless recrimination. Anyway, underinvestment isn’t driving restructuring most places, she believes, and even if it were, library administrators can’t easily admit as much. A properly-managed restructuring might manage to fix some underinvestment (at least for now), but it sadly can’t fix missed opportunities, so why dwell?

The second major problem facing research-library organizations is that steady downward pressure on collections budgets has not until quite recently been matched by pressure on librarian-rank staff budgets. The research library has truly been a sacred campus icon, and appealing to its sacredness has sufficed to protect librarian-rank staff. (That may not be all there is to it; as frustrating as it is that most university-folk have no idea what librarians do, the flip side of that coin is that they can’t easily waltz in and demand that it be done differently.) Paraprofessional complements have been taking hits, it’s true, and librarians ignored that at their peril just as tenured/tenure-track faculty ignored adjuncts only to find the very institution of tenure threatened.

Regrettably bluntly: research-library staffs are just too big relative to the perceived value of the library on campus, and relative to the staff complement of other infrastructure services. (Library-value campaigns may help to some extent, but the Loon thinks not enough.) Campus is starting to notice, demanding staff cuts too great to be managed by attrition alone. And just on numbers, “traditional” niches will be hardest hit. Imagine a library with fifty reference librarians and five systems librarians that must cut five positions, and you see the numbers problem.

So that’s thoroughly depressing and unnerving. What’s a research librarian to do?

Head out of the sand, first. Tradition guarantees no one’s job in this environment. Novelty is no guarantee either; the Loon wouldn’t bet much on some of the scholarly-communication positions in ARL libraries, for example, nor on any position created via Coordinator Syndrome. As the Loon said previously, “[t]he smart librarian… gauges her own time spent, and asks herself how much of it represents growth areas in librarianship generally and in her own library particularly. A too-small percentage may place that librarian at job risk, as she competes with librarians capable of different.”

Whatever one thinks of the Harvard situation, it does spur a useful thought-experiment. If you had to reapply for your job, would you be competitive against what’s in a typical applicant pool nowadays? (The Loon can tell you that today’s library-school graduates are sharper than they were in her day—and her day was not all that long ago. She’s outright intimidated by her more formidable students, so much so that she must remind herself to eschew the sin of Daedalus.) If you had to reapply for any job anywhere, what’s out there? What are research libraries looking for?

The Loon doesn’t just look at jobs within her own professional specialties when she goes through the above exercise (which she does now and again, on her own behalf and her students’). It’s worth trying for a gestalt notion of where research librarianship writ large is growing and shrinking. Moving into a new specialty may not be desirable or even feasible, but sorting out which new specialties you might be able to bolster strikes the Loon as smart self-preservation strategy; libraries will need staff willing and versatile enough to bridge old and new, lest they wind up in yet another round of Coordinator Syndrome.

Perhaps you’ll never be a data curator, O science liaison, but you can (the Loon swears this is true!) learn enough about research-data management to be a significant asset to any incoming data-curation program in your library. Without changing jobs. And that’s just one example. Don’t take the Loon’s word for it; read job ads, look for themes, and look for themes you can profitably fit yourself into.

Better still, forget about what’s happening inside libraries—what’s happening inside research universities? Expanding job-ad investigations to IT, instructional design, research administration, student services, and other such parallel fields only makes sense. Again, gestalt—where is the university going, and who will be needed to get it there?

Futurism? Eh. The Loon has library futurists she believes. She has others she’d like to believe. She occasionally dabbles in futurism herself—and based on her own track record, she doesn’t put too much faith in library futurism in any of its guises, certainly not enough to base her career decisions on it. Others’ mileage may vary, but the Loon prefers going boldly into the present to bloviating about what might perhaps happen later. (She wouldn’t be writing this post if, well, things weren’t happening now, see?)

A fate to fight tooth and nail is labor casualization. Permanent jobs may well not survive what’s coming, any more than they’re likely to for faculty, but that’s not the same thing as an intentional drive toward cheap, contingent, short-term labor. Be wary of postdocs in the library not because they’re Ph.Ds, not because they don’t hold MLSes, but because they’re on one- or two-year contracts, after which they will be discarded like so much dross. That could be anyone, next, so don’t let anyone on staff be treated this way if it can be avoided. Demand clear, fair, universally-applied policy with respect to hiring, retention, and promotion.

May good research libraries and good research librarians survive the coming turmoil with as little damage and as much potential as possible. The Loon wishes she could wish more boldly.

26 thoughts on “Restructuring

  1. yet another Jennifer

    Brava. Particularly the parts about thinking about applying for your own job and keeping up with what’s out there, in and out of libraries. I hope none of us ever have to “apply for your own job” but its easy, in a fairly steady job, to feel complacent. Remember, sometimes you can’t look to other librarians as models. I am surrounded by people who have worked at my current institution for 20 years or more. I already know I will never be that person though they are not at all uncommon at libraries (and my heart goes out to the Harvard staff in that situation…25 years in and having to justify your existence). And no one under 45 should think they will be. I admire their knowledge and respect them as professionals, but they can’t help me make my career, really. That’s another reason its hard.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      The Loon recently heard a science librarian much closer to retirement than to the MLS describing her job and her approach to it to a group of library-school students. The Loon clamped her beak onto her tongue as hard as she could clamp it. The description was straight out of the 1980s, barely acknowledging change since then. Students who took the librarian’s words seriously will not be in the best position to seek employment.

      It is hard. The librarian in question has been an excellent librarian, well worthy of respect. How is it possible to say, politely and respectfully, “librarianship has changed; you haven’t?”

  2. Gary McGath

    A little context, since huge numbers of people only noticed yesterday a process that’s been going on for nearly two years and are treating it as if it were a complete surprise. Before the restructuring started, the Harvard University Libraries (plural) were a mostly uncoordinated set of libraries with redundant efforts and poor economy of scale in acquisitions. Fixing that was necessary.

    Yesterday we came in expecting that some long-overdue announcements in organizational structure would finally happen. They didn’t. Instead we learned about cutbacks. We were told we have to fill in “employee profiles” to have a decent chance of continuing to work there. I could say many bad things about the way this was done, but it’s not the out-of-the-blue reorganization many are making it out to be. Harvard is denying that this profile requirement means we have to reapply for our jobs, but it certainly feels like it to many of us.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      The Loon agrees about the necessity. She read that 2009 report with beak open in pure dismayed astonishment.

      She still doesn’t feel comfortable opining about what went on yesterday. Your contribution to the context is enlightening and welcome.

  3. Jenica


    Restructuring has so much potential, particularly at the largest research end of our library spectrum. Harvard has been discussing ways to move forward with excellence for two years, and I applaud them for that goal. It just seems to me that our professional community is so very bad at handling change — either from the top down or the bottom up. Admin going public with more questions than answers? Bad strategy. Librarians responding by announcing that they’re going to start wearing the number of years of service on their nametags? Pointless and resistant.

    It just makes me sad. I hope that this process turns around, I really do. Harvard could be a beacon of possibility, or a sad, sad example of how we fuck things up.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Yes. The Loon could wish that libraries that have already gone through this had been (or would be now) more transparent about what happened, why, and what improved as a result. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t even reassure a good many librarians.

      Counterproductive reactions on all sides of the question are only to be expected; shock and fear do that to people. Eyes on the prize? If that’s possible?

  4. Jane Doe Harvard Library Staffer

    “Another symptom, as library director Jenica Rogers has pointed out, is a palpable disconnect between what research-library administrators say their strategic priorities are, and the planning and (once again) resources dedicated to those supposed priorities. ”

    I think this has been a huge issue at Harvard. In the department of my Harvard Library I’ve seen over $100,000 spent on technology without dedicating any resources towards teaching or training. Librarians definitely need to become more familiar with technology but telling them “just play with it. it’s a sandbox” is not helpful. Staff are overburdened and unless time & resources are dedicated to demonstrating how new technology can be help them do their job, the money spent on new equipment is a total waste.

    I know the money I’ve seen squandered on technology probably doesn’t equal the cost of a staffer (salary + benefits) but it is terrible PR to spend money on shiny technology while claiming to not be able to afford staff.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Yes and no. “Staff are overburdened” is all by itself a troubling hint at malinvestment. The Loon has also witnessed that identical phrase used as deadwood’s universal excuse to avoid engaging with anything (really, anything at all) new. “Just play with it” is often—honestly and truly; take this from a bird who teaches technology and relies heavily on this technique!—the best way to figure out its affordances, how to support it, how to evangelize it (when warranted), how it changes the library and patron landscape, and so on.

      As for spending money on tech, consider the flipside. The Loon has heard complaints aplenty from librarians at institutions who are “expected to learn/support new tech” but whose libraries won’t purchase any for their use.

      The golden mean for gadgetry, in the Loon’s eyes, is non-optional but guided experimentation. Penn State used to have an ongoing program for that; is it still around? The Loon also recommends Bill Kara’s “mainstreaming” article in Susan J. Barnes ed. Becoming a Digital Library. And, of course, the marvelous 23 Things program and its many offshoots.

      (Gadgetry, of course, is not the be-all and end-all of change, either.)

    2. John Fink

      Have to take strong issue with the sandbox thing — playing in sandboxes is pretty much the only way I’ve learned *anything* in my library career.

  5. A Librarian

    “Less sweeping (though still substantial), rather less public changes have already happened at ARL libraries here and there. (The Loon declines to be specific, but has three such in mind, just off the top of her feathered head.)”

    I am at one of these libraries. While our changes have been very different from what is happening at Harvard, I can’t help noticing one huge similarity- lots of talk about progress and modernizing, and lots of action on making the organizational structure more top-heavy.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      This is assuredly a risk during restructuring; it’s another form of human-resource-management-by-reshuffling.

      It’s not good. Flattening hierarchy is one thing, and can be worth doing; this isn’t that.

  6. T Scott

    I am in complete agreement that ARL libraries will undergo radical organizational and operational change over the next 3 to 5 years. What rattles me is that there is apparently the need to say that (and you say it exquisitely well). Is it truly the case that many (some? most?) librarians in ARL libraries believe that the world in which we operate is not turning completely upside down? This fact presents us with great opportunities and is why I’m tremendously excited to be a librarian in this age (I’ve been the director of a large academic biomedical library for 16 years, was director of a small academic biomedical library for 7 years prior). It’s hard and it can certainly be scary, but most days it’s exciting and even fun (I have a high degree of confidence that the librarians in my organization would agree with that). But if there are substantial numbers of ARL librarians who think this isn’t happening, then the world of ARL libraries is even weirder than I thought.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      The Loon has worked in two ARL libraries. She would say that yes, there are quite a few ARL librarians who don’t believe the world is changing, and moreover, believe that if it is, it shouldn’t be. Quite a few.

      Some of these people lead ARL libraries.

  7. Colleen

    Another fantastic post, on two points in particular (though the whole thing is a must-read for academic librarians). First: “creeping malinvestment” is exactly the best phrase – aside from continuous review of services and position descriptions vis-a-vis the library’s strategic plan or goals, what else can libraries do? I often recommend that yearly review as a best-practice to people who ask, but they consider it time-consuming. (It is. But it also helps to avoid, or at least mitigate – the need for wholesale massive reorgs.)

    Second: ” a useful thought-experiment. If you had to reapply for your job, would you be competitive against what’s in a typical applicant pool nowadays?” I do wish more practicing librarians would take this to heart. Not just because you might get re-organized. Not just because your spouse/SO/whatever might be offered a can’t-turn-it-down job that forces you to move and get back on the market. But because considering this on a regular basis, and reviewing how your job or field is evolving can also help you figure out what trajectory you want to take for your own career. If you see the jobs you would have wanted no longer appeal, which ones do? Why? And how can you add to your CV in that area to make you a more desirable candidate? The librarians I know who – *even when happy at their current jobs* – continue to learn and work as though they were constantly on the market, are some of the happiest I know, both because they remain engaged, and because they think (probably correctly) that a job hunt will not be too horrible given their continued polish.

    In any case, I’m interested to see where research libraries are going. Large organizations like ARLs suddenly wake up and realize because they havent been regularly reviewing things that they are not as agile as they need to be in a turbulent environment. Here’s to hoping other libraries can take the lesson to heart and engage in *evolutionary* change versus *revolutionary* change.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Thank you. The Loon is particularly grateful that someone immediately concerned with the Harvard situation should think so.

  8. Techie Librarian

    The issue I have with reorgs like this–which gave become necessary through years of neglect–is that this will severely impact people with lives, mortgages, kids’ tuition, etc., who weren’t responsible for the neglect. The senior administrators who were responsible will not suffer. My own senior admins make $130K-$220K and continue to be rewarded for saying yes and not planning for the good of the organization and its users. No one goes to work wanting to be irrelevant or doing shoddy work. I hope everyone recognizes the Emperor’s fine new clothes where appropriate

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      The Loon agrees, but in sober fact she doesn’t think there’s any scenario in which these folk remain unscathed. The alternative to a library-internal reorg is a slightly-tardier reorg demanded by the larger institution when the library becomes too expensive and ineffectual to live. The Loon doesn’t think that will mean any better outcomes for the rank-and-file.

      ARL librarians of all stripes would do well to look to their résumés.

  9. Scott

    This is not about change. Change is a constant in every aspect of life. The issue here is “event change”–the perceived need for upper-level management to justify their own positions by creating an event. Unfortunately, these “event changes” can and often do prevent logical adaptation to fairly simple (at the user level) technological innovations by disrupting ongoing operations and dislocating staff in bizarre, illogical organizational structures. All for the sake of appearing to be doing something useful. While the administrators run around playing Chicken Little, wringing their hands and wailing about the need to change, and accusing the working staff of resistance to change, those people who actually do the work continue on, keeping things running as best they can while their befuddled, frightened administrators wreak havoc on the system. What we’re seeing here is mismanagement at a collossal level, not because of any unmanageable changes in technology, but because of incompetent managers incapable of taking innovation in stride.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      The Loon can go some way with this, but not all the way.

      First, not all the changes in the library environment are technological in nature. Some are second-order social and behavioral changes from technology; others are simply non-technological changes. Libraries have adapted no better to them than to the technical variety.

      Second, blaming poor change management on managers is another cop-out. Librarians are supposed to be versatile, forward-thinking professionals. The Loon is highly sympathetic to the argument that poor management vitiates professionals’ ability to change their environments, mind you—but in her experience, the problem lives both with management and rank-and-file librarians.

      Third, “keeping things running” is insufficient in the face of change in the environment. Again, this is a rank-and-file problem as much as it is management.

  10. Morry

    I totally agree with Scott on this point. I am a librarian with > 25yrs experience, and I have witnessed similar situations every 10 years or so…. where “managers” run around chopping heads at the bequest of University Administrations. Part of the problem lies in the fact that so called managers acquire this aura whereby they lose sight of the fact that they are but simple librarians with administrative duties. They should be rotated every five years to prevent myopic tendencies .

    Bet that many of the “managers” would not qualify were they to apply for positions they help prior to being bumped up into the manger sphere.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Library management has a different job. It’s no less vital and important than any other library job, and requires just as many specialized skills. Is it often done badly? To be sure. Does that condemn the entire enterprise? The Loon hopes not.

      Would you do a library manager’s job well? (The Loon knows she wouldn’t, incidentally, though she would give it the old college try.) Do you think it’s an easy job? If not, perhaps a little more humility might be warranted.

  11. BGD12

    Gary McGath stated: “Before the restructuring started, the Harvard University Libraries (plural) were a mostly uncoordinated set of libraries with redundant efforts and poor economy of scale in acquisitions. Fixing that was necessary. ”

    With all due respect, I contest that assertion. The guiding assumption of the Transition was that centralization was preferable and more “efficient” than decentralization. As an employee of one of the non-Harvard College Libraries (HCL), that is, a graduate level departmental library, I take issue with those who claim that we were the problem. Speaking for my library, we do coordinate services and acquisitions with HCL, we are responsive to the needs of our local users (and all Harvard users), and we operate on an efficient basis within the restraints of our local budget. We frequently assess our services and hours of operation to ensure maximum efficiency. When people hear that Harvard has X number of libraries, some naturally gasp and think “wow, that must be inefficient!”. But once you consider the size of the University and it’s various schools and departments, it should become clear that local decentralized library services are often a necessity and have developed that way over time. That does not mean that a reorganization was not in order, and that inefficiencies and redundancies can’t be reduced–they can and should. I’m simply making the point that this seems like a predetermined outcome based on unsupported assertions. The questions you might want to be asking in this instance and any other is: why is this reorganization being done, in whose interest is it, and who will benefit from it and how?
    Thank you.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      “Developed that way over time” is not a defense. So has global warming.

      “Often a necessity:” [citation needed]. The Loon’s sense is that many large research libraries are highly overinvested in redundant services. If the necessity can be proven, well and good. Merely asserting it is is insufficient.

  12. BGD12

    To Scott and Morry:

    I kind of agree with you but you have to admit (if you’re a Harvard Library staff member) that these people are not incompetent chicken little’s. They’re intelligent and shrewd persons in positions of power who know how the game is played and they’re simply rigging it for the outcome they want or need to achieve. It may actually have something to do with making the academic research library better, or it may not. The staff members who will be terminated are just the collateral damage of it all.

  13. LibraryLoon Post author

    The comment stream is becoming a haven for thoughtlessly abusive talk about library management. This wasn’t the Loon’s intent, and she does not approve of it. Rather than have the abuse continue, the Loon is shutting down comments on this post.